Human beings tend to default to a self-at-the-centre mindset in everything. We even bring this predisposition to our understanding of Christianity and end up with variations on the same theme. We are the seekers, we find Jesus, we commit to Jesus, we live for Jesus, etc. If we are not careful we can paint our own self-at-the-centre approach in the colours of Christianity and assume all is well.
Perhaps we have heard counter arguments against our being the seekers. After all, the great initiative surely rests with Christ in this regard since he came from heaven to earth, from the throne to the manger, from God’s side to ours. As one of the great punchlines of Luke’s Gospel tells us, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) The story of Christmas and the first Easter are conclusive, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
Accepting that Jesus moved toward us before we could ever move in his direction, let’s ponder what we might call the encounter. In John’s Gospel we get the stunning opening prologue that introduces us to the Word of God who is at the Father’s side, but who pitches his tent among us, comes to reveal the Father, full of glorious grace and truth, who comes to his own but they do not receive him, and yet is able to give the right to become the children of God to those who do.
After this prologue the introduction really continues for the first four chapters or so as we are introduced to great themes that will continue to develop under the intense pressure of the tension between Jesus and the authorities. In these opening chapters we are introduced to themes of belief, of glory, of signs, of witness and more. And in these opening chapters we get incident after incident of people encountering Jesus.
John the Baptist comes as our first witness to Jesus, declaring that he is not the Christ, but is just a voice preparing the way. He declares that he is just baptizing with water. But he points to the coming Christ who is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the one who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. The focus is well and truly on Jesus when he finally walks into the action and starts to meet people.
After a couple of John’s disciples follow Jesus, one of them brings his brother to Jesus. Jesus seems to already know him. As soon as they meet, Jesus renames him. Next verse we have another person being brought to Jesus by the witness of another, this time it is Phillip bringing Nathanael. Nathanael is understandably skeptical about the idea that the Messiah could come from Nazareth, but as he approaches Jesus he also finds that Jesus already knows him.
What Jesus says to Nathanael seems to stir an extreme change in Nathanael. Jesus makes one comment about the lack of deceit in Nathanael and he suddenly declares that Jesus is the Son of God and king of Israel. That is a big shift from his skepticism about Nazareth. Looking at the clues in the text at this point it feels like Nathanael may have been pondering the story of Jacob as he sat under the fig tree, maybe he was praying about it. Jesus knew Nathanael. He knew what he had been thinking or praying and proved it with his deceit comment. He reinforced it with a reference to angels ascending and descending (but notice who is the connection between heaven and earth – it is Jesus!)
In the second chapter Jesus starts to reveal his glorious kindness, sensitivity and power at the wedding in Cana, before heading for the temple in Jerusalem. He created a stir there and people started to trust in him at some level. But interestingly we are told that Jesus did not entrust himself to them. Why? Because he knew what was in man. So we are introduced to an example man – Nicodemus.
Jesus and the teacher of Israel have a conversation in chapter three that again begins with Jesus revealing that he does indeed know what is in man. Nicodemus comes to Jesus with kind words and Jesus seems to rebuff him by stating that unless he is born from above, then Jesus can’t chit chat with him about the God subject. Jesus knows that this great teacher is actually still spiritually dead on the inside. Nicodemus is confronted not by a Rabbi come from God that he can approach, but by someone who sees to the core of who he is and what he lacks.
In chapter four we get another person encountering Jesus. This time it is a troubled woman shunned by her own peers who meets Jesus at a well. Not surprisingly it soon becomes clear that Jesus knows what is going on in her life too. While she is still thinking this is just another man trying to make a connection with her, Jesus tells her about her five husbands and live-in lover. She is undone.
Just as we cannot take credit for seeking Jesus, nor can we take credit for getting to know him first. When we meet Jesus we are meeting one who knows all about us. Maybe this is an aspect of evangelism that we have let slip over the years? Perhaps we are proclaiming a gospel that focuses too much on the person, and too little on Jesus? Perhaps as people encounter Christ they will be undone as they come to discover that he already knows them, and yet loves them still!
Maybe this is an aspect of our own relationship with Christ that has slipped from our awareness too? How easily we can slip into presenting ourselves carefully to Christ as if he does not know all the gritty reality of our inner lives. How easily we can pray wearing a mask. How easily we forget that Jesus really knows us, and fully loves us. We are totally vulnerable before him, whether we know it or not, he knows us. We are fully known, and yet fully loved!